Saturday, September 15, 2012

Libyan Attacks - Let's Fight Violence with Science

Cross posted at

By now, you've probably heard about the terrorist attacks on the US consulate in Libya where four Americans were killed in protest of an anti-Muslim film that was recently released.

There are many facets of this development that merit discussion, but this comment from Obama caught my attention:
As we mourn their loss, we must also send a clear and resolute message to the world: those who attack our people will find no escape from justice. We will not waver in their pursuit. And we will never allow anyone to shake the resolve of the United States of America
The sentiment, that the US will do whatever is needed, where ever it is needed, as long as it is needed to bring those who committed these senseless acts to justice, is understandable.  It represents a respect and to the families of those that were murdered and a commitment to Justice.

Yet, I can't help but feel that this is a misguided approach, if it is truly intended to be implemented as Obama's remarks make it sound.  Is there no cost too high?  Its a tough line to walk: on the one hand terrorism should not be tolerated and society seemingly should deter terrorism through the pursuit of justice; on the other hand, resources are finite and the problems that face our country and the world are nearly infinite.

So here's my half-baked, semi-thawed, top-of-the-morning idea that probably makes no political or foreign policy sense to anyone that knows that a consulate isn't an embassy:
Instead of spending millions billions to bring the terrorists to justice for the non-trivial lives of 4 individuals, let us spend billions - as a direct response to these attacks - on research to cure cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. 
These three diseases accounted for 1,200,000 deaths in 2010.  So finding a cure for any of them would obviously be a huge benefit to society.

Sure it sounds ridiculous and non-sequitir.  But that's kinda the point.  Instead of responding to hateful, anti-free speech violence fueled by religious zealotry with imperialistic,  ineffectual (in that it seems to just fuel hatred and spur terrorist recruiting) violence fueled by the unfortunate combination of revenge-lust and a well-funded military industrial complex, let's try something radically different:

Instead of responding to violence with violence.  Let's fight violence with science.

What could be more devastating to those that hate America than to refuse to capitulate to their dream of pervasive violence, social instability, and hate?

Wouldn't finding a cure for the most costly, debilitating, and deadly diseases (and all the scientific and technological discoveries and applications that result) benefit society more than avenging the injustice of those murdered at the Libyan consulate?

There's a shocking disparity between our priorities and the things that threaten us.  So why not defiantly fight violence with science?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Repost - Waving The Flag ≠ Patriotism

Re-posted from 2011 and cross-posted at

Hanging a multicolored piece of fabric is not patriotism.  If you think it is, you're a pretentious rube. When you consider the impact 9/11 had on this country, such a trivial gesture seems terribly inadequate.  Instead of having a meaningful and reflective conversation on the impact that 9/11 had on the country's foreign and domestic policies, politics, culture, media, etc., there seems to be  a race to be the most outwardly pious patriot possible.

Saying nice sounding things does not "honor" the soldiers or "respect" the victims or their families.  To the contrary, I would argue, such meaningless platitudes trivialize the sacrifices of those protecting us and the victims of 9/11.  But to express dissent from the fragile and air-headed sensibilities of the masses, is to call upon the masses to demonize one's self.

Just looking at my facebook feed is depressing how facile and prentious the 9/11 comments are: "God bless the USA" or "The families of 9/11 in our prayers" or "Never forget".    I would like to ask, what purpose does posting "God bless America" serve?  Setting aside the fact that no evidence exists for a god, what makes you think by saying this that he would 'bless' the USA?  Is it necessary to say this in order to prevent another terrorist attack?  Was it god's will for 9/11 to occur and for thousands to lose their lives?  If so, why are you trying to countermand god's will, and if it wasn't god's will, what makes you think he has the ability to prevent another such attack?  And why are you asking for blessing only for America?  Wouldn't world peace be more desirable?  I'll save my rhetorical (though I would be happy to hear responses) questions on the other two common sentiments since they're just as vacuous and serve only to flaunt the posters' faux patriotism.

I say "faux patriotism" because one would never hear these people take any substantive interest in any of the negative outcomes 9/11 had on society.  You wouldn't hear them take issue with the fact that we have essentially capitulated to the terrorists' goals of weakening our democratic principles.  Instead, if informed of the systematic undermining of the Constitution by their own government in the name of counter-terrorism, post hoc rationalizations are made along the lines of "well, if it increases our security, then I'll trust the experts."  Never is there a discussion of how to balance the inherent tradeoffs between of security and liberty.  Instead security is the only goal, and those that are concerned with the erosion of civil liberties are un-Patriotic

Take for example, the Patriot Act.  What a brilliant work of propaganda to attach the very attribute to which average Americans aspire to the piece of legislation that anyone that has a passing knowledge of the Bill of Rights would recognize as, at the very least, a threat to the 4th Amendment and 1st Amendments. 

This past week, the ACLU released a report as Glenn Greenwald puts it, "to comprehensively survey the severe erosion of civil liberties justified in the name of that event, an erosion that -- as it documents -- continues unabated, indeed often in accelerated form, under the Obama administration."  Reading Greenwald's analysis of the report is quite sobering:

Last week, the top lawyer and 34-year-veteran of the CIA, John Rizzo, explained to PBS' Frontline that Obama has "changed virtually nothing" from Bush policies in these areas, and this week, the ACLU explains that "most [Bush] policies remain core elements of our national security strategy today."  At some point very soon, this basic truth will be impossible to deny with a straight face even for the most hardened loyalists of both parties, each of whom have been eager, for their own reasons, to deny it.

Here are a couple snippets from the report:

This last point I think is the most important.  The continued torturerendition, warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention, and the targeted assassination of a US citizen are disgusting violations of civil liberties, but, in my opinion, are far less of a threat to a functioning democracy than surveillance for the purposes of silencing political dissent under the pretext of security.  A government so obsessed with security as ours is becoming (or has become) is one that loses any sembalence of Democracy.  When political dissent is considered a threat to Democracy, you no longer have Democracy; you have an authoritarian regime.  And perhaps an authoritarian regime that capitalizes on the fear that terror attacks fuel.

While few would be so stupid as to publicly wish for more terror attacks, one Arkansas Republican probably spoke for many when he said in 2007, "all we need is some attacks on American soil like we had on [Sept. 11, 2001] and the naysayers will come around very quickly to appreciate not only the commitment for President Bush, but the sacrifice that has been made by men and women to protect this country."

But any thoughtful discussion of the important issues that affect society will by and large not take place on Facebook.  Instead you will see meaningless pablum from those that want to display their Patriot Feathers.  Or just as any good propaganda machine would love, you'll see vitriolic attacks on anyone that says anything (like questioning the multifarious impact that government policies have had on the country) that can be construed as not "supporting the troops" or "honoring the fallen".

So it is.  (and the hash tag is quite telling: I'm going to yell and curse at you until you agree with me or shut up.  And if you don't capitulate to my opinion, I'm not going to even try to refute your argument.  Go ahead, de-friend me.  Or we can have a civil discussion on the issues on their merits)

Monday, September 10, 2012

The 9/11 Memorial, Revisited

Cross-posted at

Last December I wrote about my visit to the 9/11 Memorial in NYC and noted that the Security Theater on display was a perfect, though unintentional, symbol of how our country has responded to the 9/11 attacks: endless security and paranoia.
This manifests itself in several different ways:
  1. Security guards or cops ever 10 yards or so
  2. NYPD security cameras every 10 yards or so
  3. An airport-like security checkpoint.  Once you go past several dozen security cameras, you get to this checkpoint where you go inside and put your coat, belt, and any electronics into bins to be x-rayed (though not your shoes).  Like the airport you go through the metal detector and collect your belongings.  I was able to get a picture of the scene from outside the building, though once inside you see signs telling you not to take pictures. 
As we approach our annual arms race for our nation's true patriots to identify themselves through cheap signaling rather than substantive or thoughtful discussion of our countries direction, a number of reports have been in the news citing the construction and maintenance costs of the 9/11 memorial, coming in at $700m and $60m respectively, with $300m coming from the federal government.

When I wrote the post about my visit to the memorial, I wondered if the over-the-top security (including the airport-like screening) was a temporary measure or permanent.  Based on this yahoo article, it seems they are permanent.
The foundation plans to spend at least a fifth of its operating budget, or around $12 million per year, on private security because of terrorism fears. Visitors to the memorial plaza pass through airport-like security, and armed guards patrol the grounds.
What an epic waste of money.  What a sad commentary on our collective lack of self awareness that we voluntarily resign ourselves to self oppression in order to make ourselves more 'secure' and preserve 'liberty' and 'freedom'.  Security is often at odds with liberty and freedom, but for some reason adding checkpoints, heavily armed guards, and warrentless civilian surveillance makes people think their freedoms and liberties are being preserved.  

Even putting all that aside, as I noted last December:
I'm really curious as to why all this security is needed, the memorials themselves are quite striking, but they really don't seem to warrant the excessive security leading up to them.  It seems to me that the purpose of such security should be to protect human life or valuable assets.  In this respect, the memorials don't pose a potential threat to human life any greater than any other part of the city [would it be so surprising to start seeing checkpoints throughout the city in the not-too-distant-future? Does it take anything but the gradual conditioning to the erosion of civil liberties?], and while I'm sure the memorials cost a good amount of money, there are certainly just as many valuable assets in other parts of the city that don't have this level of security.  For example, the Guggenheim had precisely zero security.  No guards, no metal detectors, no paranoia.  Yet the building itself, as a historic landmark alone, I'm sure is quite valuable.  But there it is right on the corner of 5th and E88th for anyone to walk up to.